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Travel to Manchester


Lunch with Simon Rogan at The Cornerhouse, Manchester

1 February 2015

Images: Geoff Brokate

Kaye Martindale talks to Simon Rogan, one of the UK’s most creative chefs, over a plate of ragu at Manchester’s The Cornerhouse

The recent UK TV show Restaurant Wars portrayed British culinary colossus Simon Rogan as the archetypal celebrity chef, shouting and barking at his minions like an unhinged despot. So it was only natural that I was a little apprehensive about sitting down to lunch with him. Expecting Simon to waltz through the door fashionably late in the usual celebrity style, I was thrown to have him arrive 15 minutes early. 

My apprehension melted when I saw that he looked at least as nervous as me. As Simon posed for photographs in his black hoodie, I proposed that he might look better if he took it off so we could see his chef’s jacket underneath. Embarrassed, Simon put his hand to his mouth as though he’d made a huge faux pas, and said, “They’ll say I’ve turned up to an interview in my chef’s jacket.” 

The “they” in question is the British media and members of the general public who made Simon public enemy number one while Restaurant Wars was airing on the BBC. “They portrayed me as a bully. I’m horrified that people would think that and it really upset me.” He looks genuinely wounded. “There was a lot of nasty, nasty stuff around on social media. It’s really put me off TV, because they can twist things terribly.” 

It’s hard to imagine Simon Rogan as a bully; although his voice tends towards the booming, his body language belies his shy and private nature. When he speaks about his numerous projects he uses the very inclusive first person plural, we and our, to describe the way things work. Simon’s culinary empire encompasses six award-winning and hugely successful restaurants dotted around England, along with two organic farms, one in the Lake District and one in the Midlands, and a development and research kitchen in Cartmel in Cumbria. 

We have met at The Cornerhouse, Manchester’s dependably cool centre for contemporary art and independent cinema. Its restaurant’s head chef, Carlton Anglin, is faced with the daunting task of cooking for a man whose restaurants have a total of three Michelin stars and whose Lake District destination restaurant, L’Enclume, was recently voted number one in the UK for the second year running by The Good Food Guide. Carlton asks Simon what he would like and I sense a secret chef’s code of conduct when Simon replies earnestly, “Whatever you recommend chef.”

Simon’s life is a lesson in where determination and hard work can get you. It started on Southampton’s Shirley Warren council housing estate, which he describes as “infamous”. “If people know I’m from The Warren they look at me as if I was a poor soul.” 

Simon’s parents weren’t married when he was born, and he spent the first years of his life living with his mother and grandparents while his mother finished her education. When he was a few years older his parents married, and he remembers fondly a childhood without much money but lots of love. You don’t have to be a Freudian analyst to work out where the motivation for Simon’s relentless pursuit of money and prestige comes from, and he’s very open and unapologetic about his desire to earn as much money as he can. 

Yet he couldn’t have gotten where he is today without a genuine passion for what he does. Simon charts his love of food back to days spent waiting for his father, a fruit and vegetable salesman, to finish work. “I used to sit on the pallets in the warehouse and there was a really distinctive smell about the place and I loved the atmosphere. 

"One of the perks of his job was getting a goody bag of weird and wonderful things like paw paw, mango and kiwi. No one had a clue what to do with them. They weren’t in the supermarket then. I wanted to get to know more about these ingredients. Subconsciously this must have been a massive influence on my life.” 

High quality Ingredients are the very thing Simon has built his reputation and culinary empire around. From his first days as an apprentice chef at a country house hotel in the New Forest, Simon would spend afternoons foraging for wild mushrooms and herbs. “The wild side of things” have always held a special allure for him.

Our food arrives. As he tucks into his beef short and rib ragu, Simon is almost apologetic as he confesses that he’s been tasting food all day at his restaurant, The French, Simon’s restaurant at the Midland Hotel. Apparently he’s already quite full but he doesn’t want to give the chef a complex by leaving it uneaten. 

After giving careful consideration to his career path, Simon worked under some of the country’s leading chefs before becoming disillusioned with working for other people. “I think I was always destined to be my own boss. I’d had jobs working as head chef for other people but I never quite got to where I believed I should be. 

"The only way I was going to fulfil what I thought I was capable of was by working for myself. Then came along L’Enclume and that was the chance to have my own restaurant, to make my own mistakes, and do exactly what I wanted to do for a change.” 

L’Enclume is Simon’s flagship restaurant in the idilic Lake District village of Cartmel. The tiny village is now referred to by some as “Roganville” due to the fact that he owns two restaurants and the local pub there. Twelve years ago, when Simon and his partner, Penny, sold everything to buy L’Enclume, Cartmel was recovering from the devastation of foot and mouth disease, which ravaged rural communities in the UK and resulted in the culling of more than 10 million sheep and cattle.

Fast forward to 2015 and this tiny village is on The New York Times Top 50 places to visit list and lies at the heart of the Lakes’ reinvention as UK’s ultimate foodie destination. It was a huge gamble for Simon, a southerner, to take his gourmet dream to a small rural village in the north. “We had faith and we took the plunge. We sold everything: the house, the car and some electrical stuff,” he says.

“But the biggest sacrifice was leaving behind our family and friends. The food we were serving was quite common in London, but our product was a big risk for the area.” L’Enclume grew slowly and after three years of increasing success, in 2005 it gained its first, highly coveted, Michelin star. Simon stays true to his vision of organic, sustainable, quality local produce for L’Enclume, even if it sometimes makes life difficult for him and his team.

“We’ve got a strong ethos – natural, organic, environmental – and we have strong rules about what can and can’t be used,” he says. “We use no foreign ingredients whatsoever, not even lemons. There’s nothing more important in a chef’s toolbox than to add a squeeze of lemon juice to something to heighten the flavour. We don’t have that so we have to be clever and seek alternatives to obtain the same result. 

"Everything we do has the same message with L’Enclume. You’re sat on a Cumbrian crafted chair, eating at a Cumbrian table, off a Cumbrian plate, with Cumbrian art on the walls and outside the spectacular Cumbrian landscape.”

Success at L’Enclume led to Simon’s current partnership with the newly revamped Midland Hotel in Manchester, where he took over the reins of its restaurants The French and Mr Cooper’s. This difficult process was documented by Restaurant Wars. Despite not showing Simon in the most positive light, the show left the restaurant overwhelmed with bookings as “the hordes came in because of me being on the TV”. 

While explaining his plans, Simon states that he doesn’t particularly like cooking anymore, before awkwardly backtracking. “I mean the day-to-day preparation. That’s a young man’s game. I’m a bit old for that now.” Happy to let his staff deal with “the day-to-day grind of prepping” Simon now sees himself as a restauranteur. 

“I enjoy delivering an experience. Bringing together the ambience, the furniture, the whole atmosphere surrounding the restaurant, and hopefully delivering a memorable experience that they’ll never forget.” The success of his most recent venture, Fera, at London’s famous Claridge’s Hotel, stands as testament to his vision, winning a Michelin star having been open less than six months.

Not satisfied with six restaurants, Simon is planning to open a fish restaurant on the south coast and at least one more Mr Cooper’s in the north this year. I ask where he gets the drive from and he tells me, frankly, “Money propels me.” He’s looking forward to an early retirement and with four children, one grandchild and another on the way, Simon doesn’t feel he has quite enough in the bank yet. 

“I’ve got a grandson who’s a couple of years old and shockingly I’ve only seen him half a dozen times, and that really upsets me, so I’d like to make up for the time I missed out on with my children by spending more time with my grandchildren,” he says. As our meal comes to an end, I switch off the voice recorder and I notice a softening in Simon’s body; he’s let down his defences and for the first time since coming in through the door he seems to relax. 

This busy man, who travels up and down the country on almost a daily basis, seems happy to pause for a few minutes before heading off to fulfil his next duty. He checks his phone. “Hmm,” he exhales, before explaining that the highly successful BBC show MasterChef wants him to make an appearance. “I won’t be doing that,” he shrugs. “My days in TV are over.” 

The Bill 

1 x Pizza – Formaggo di Capra (£7.75) Goats’ cheese, roast peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella, tomato
1 x Cornerhouse Superfood Salad ( £7.50)
1 x Devilled mushroom on toast (£6.95)
1 x Beef stroganoff and rib ragu (£9.75)
Total: £31.95